Commentary: Is the media too scared to laugh?

The Miami HeraldOctober 28, 2010 

I must make a disclosure: In August, I attended a taping in New York of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As an audience member, I was told I was a ``part'' of the show, since viewers at home would get juiced by our laughter and applause, and in that regard, I ``participated'' in the program, much of which included political bits and derisive remarks about contemporary bigshots. Yes, I did laugh.

Something else too. I was there at the invitation of my friend Lewis Black, who is a comic and was doing a spot on that show, and Lew frequently says unkind things about politicians. I usually laugh at those, too, since he's been making me laugh since we were both 6 years old, although he was less political then.

Now, with that out of the way, and with you fully aware of my hidden biases, I can turn to this week's topic, which is the upcoming event on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in which Comedy Central headliner Jon Stewart is joining his Rally to Restore Sanity with fellow satirist Stephen Colbert's March to Keep Fear Alive.

For various reasons, a number of top news organizations have warned their staffs to keep clear of this event.

National Public Radio outright prohibited news people from going unless they were covering it. ``NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers. This restriction applies to the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies,'' the staff memo stated.

The Washington Post's directive was worthy of a medieval scholar. Post journalists may go to the rally, but may not ``participate'' in it. ``By participate, we mean that Post newsroom employees cannot in any way put themselves in a position that could be construed as supporting (or opposing) that cause. That means no T-shirts, buttons, marching, chanting, etc.''

I'm not sure what the rally's ``cause'' consists of, and who's doing the ``construing,'' but attendance is permissible as long as any laughing, hooting or sneering is discreet (and the T-shirts are off.)

The New York Times -- which has the most thorough conflict-of-interest rules of this, or any other, solar system -- offered characteristically unintelligible guidance. After clearing its institutional throat -- ``We would view these at least in part as political events (despite the comic/satirical elements)'' -- its directive reminds people not to do anything that ``might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or The Times' ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.''

So if you work for The Times, laughter might be OK, as long as it's noncommittal. If you work for The Post, choke it back. (A muted snicker might be acceptable.) And if you're with NPR -- well, you won't even have heard the joke, right?

So, is there some serious ethical issue here? You bet, but it isn't what it appears to be.

Look, conflicts of interest among journalists matter when they involve outside entanglements, obligations or loyalties that might impair the journalism the public gets. Consider the business reporter who covers a company in which she owns shares.

But this? A goofy event on the Mall in which two brilliant satirists throw spitballs at politicians -- very likely including the president whose party will be on the cusp of an electoral disaster? So what if they prefer to tweak the Right? How does being on hand for this even begin to compromise anything?

Besides, don't employees -- even journalists -- have some right to private time? And does NPR really want to tell its news hounds they're forbidden to check out the most interesting event in town that day? Isn't that what journalists do, even when they're not on the clock?

What comes through in these various statements isn't some commitment to integrity and impartiality the news chiefs seem to intend.

It's their own extraordinary timidity.

I can't imagine tackling a truly controversial story -- the kind that brings down serious heat -- for a news organization that twaddles over whether I can take the kids downtown on a Saturday afternoon to see a TV star they revere. Is the best news outfit in the history of U.S. radio so scared that some zealot will post pictures online of newscasters wearing silly hats as proof that it's a den of closeted Trotskyists that it has to put yellow tape around the entire Mall?

That's essentially what NPR president Vivian Schiller said: ``The rationale for this policy is pretty simple. We live in an age of `gotcha' journalism where people troll, looking for cracks in our credibility.''

Cracks indeed. I would say the first obligation of any news organization is to protect and defend the conditions within which its people can practice journalism. Without that, there is no credibility.

And not much fun either.

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